GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The 49ers didn't want to say the words Sunday evening. They hesitated. They came up with alternative answers and half-hearted generalities.

But when you looked into the players' blank stares after Sunday's inexplicable 21-19 loss to Arizona, you got the feeling the 49ers knew what was true.

It took 13 games, but they finally played right into the hands of dreaded enemy Freddie P. Soft.

They let up. They came into Arizona casually presuming victory then really relaxed after they knocked Arizona starting quarterback Kevin Kolb out of the game in the first quarter.

Their presumptions were all wrong.

"I really don't know how to describe this one," tight end Vernon Davis said after the 49ers inexplicably blew a 12-point lead and lost.

But Davis knew the deal. Everybody in the locker room knew -- and probably everybody in the Cardinals' locker room knew it, too.

In this game, when they only needed to be OK, the 49ers gave their worst effort -- by far -- of the 2011 season.

A week after clinching the NFC West, the 49ers looked slow and they had no passion or rhythm.

After playing so many games so fiercely this year, the 49ers relaxed on Sunday at a very bad time for it.

"We left a little bit out there," safety Dashon Goldson said. "We didn't tackle as well as we usually do. We didn't play well at the point of attack."

They also failed repeatedly inside the red zone, couldn't handle Arizona's blitzing, and gave up two game-changing pass plays to Arizona's back-up QB, John Skelton.


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Absorb all that, and there's little doubt the 49ers took this one for granted and played like it, even though coach Jim Harbaugh refused to come to that obvious conclusion.

"No," Harbaugh said tersely. "I don't think so."

Harbaugh also pointed out that a bizarre sequence that wiped away the 49ers' successful fake field goal in the first half cost the 49ers "a 14-point swing," and said this was merely a tough football game for both teams.

He could've added (and didn't) that the 49ers were without Patrick Willis for the entire game and Joe Staley for much of it, due to injuries.

But Harbaugh volunteered one point that seemed to agree with the notion that the 49ers' mentality just wasn't sharp on Sunday.

"We'll look forward to seeing how our team responds to some adversity," Harbaugh said. "We haven't had a lot of that this year." No, they haven't. And now ...

They're still 10-3, still headed to the playoffs, and still can fend off New Orleans for the No. 2 seed -- and a bye in the first round of the playoffs -- with a strong finish.

But it will be fascinating to see what happens after this head-scratching performance.

Do they come back roaring Monday night against Pittsburgh? Or do the 49ers go into a funk and slip back into 2010 habits?

"At the end of the day, it doesn't matter that we're definitely in the door for the playoffs," Davis said. "It doesn't really matter until we finish the season strong."

On Sunday, without Willis the defense seemed befuddled at times, the offensive play-calling was less than scintillating and Alex Smith seemed to revert to his old erratic ways.

Lost focus, lost game. Lost momentum?

It's a tribute to the 49ers' achievement this season that they went so long without any of these questions cropping up.

It's up to them to determine if the questions get answered now, with the playoffs looming.

"It's not something that I think we are just going to dismiss and move on," Smith said. "We are into December now. We have to continue to get better. We can't just dismiss this."

It really was the first time you felt that this team showed some traces of 2010.

Either they re-boot the mainframe fairly quickly -- clean out those bad viruses -- or the 49ers are going to be in for some trouble when the playoffs hit.

The emphasis after the game: Don't get down, just get it fixed.

"We're 10-3 -- we're still good," Goldson said. "We've just got to go out and polish what we're doing."

They didn't want to admit that they let Freddie Soft into their heads, but they can fix that with fierce focus and some hard work.

It probably was Harbaugh's greatest fear for this final stage. And it also might be his greatest motivational tool heading into January.

Read Tim Kawakami's Talking Points blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/kawakami. Contact him at tkawakami@mercurynews.com or 408-920-5442.